In the dusty hills of Hashtgerd, some 40 miles west of Tehran, a rider on a souped-up bike comes roaring along a rough-and-ready race track, braving steep jumps and dangerous turns.
With a bright orange and black biker suit and helmet, the motorcyclist looks just like any other, until the helmet comes off. The rider is a woman.
“When people find that out, they stop and say damet-garm [Persian for ‘right on’],” Behnaz Shafiei told the Guardian. She feels welcome in an otherwise all-male motorcycling club, where she practises three times a week: “They offer help when I tow my bike with the car or when I run into a technical problem.”
The 26-year-old is among the first group of female motorcyclists in to have recently obtained official permission to practise on off-road circuits, and the one and only Iranian female rider to have done professional road racing.
Although Shafiei and a handful of other existing female motocross riders can operate in clubs, they are not allowed to enter competitions or ride on official race tracks, including one at Tehran’s magnificent Azadi sport complex, currently exclusive to men.
In fact, women in Iran are still banned from riding a motorbike in public, and are not issued licences, although they are allowed to take part in other sports, from martial arts to car rallies.
But things are beginning to change. Shafiei’s story has attracted a great deal of interest at home. A leading at play and state-run television has broadcast an interview with her. Shafiei is hopeful that soon she will also be allowed to compete.
Men and women alike rub their eyes in disbelief when they see her on a motorbike, Shafiei said, but she added that reactions were always positive.
“I’ve never seen a bad reaction to what I do. People here are fascinated when they see a woman doing such a physically demanding sport,” she said. “Everyone has something affirmative to say. Women wave hands and say well done, you are brave. There are people who can’t believe a woman can ride a motorbike but they’re generally thrilled and feel very proud.”
Shafiei, who was born and raised in Karaj, near Tehran, found her passion for motorcycling at the age of 15 while on holiday with her family in Zanjan province.
“There was this young woman in a village there who rode a 125cc urban motorbike to travel between houses, like one used by the postman,” she recalled. “I like that a lot and told myself that I want to ride a motorbike too and in fact I learned how to ride a motorcycle for the first time during my stay there.”
With support from her family, especially her mother, Shafiei dabbled in motorcycling for a few years before pursuing the sport professionally. “I used to borrow my brother’s bike and ride in the city stealthily. It was such fun,” she said.
She saved money from her work as an accountant and bought her first bike, an Apache 180cc, four years ago. A couple of years later she went to a track race in northern Karaj to have a look. Male riders there, she said, encouraged her to come along regularly and offered to teach her what they knew.
These days, Shafiei has changed her bike to a 2012 Suzuki 250cc, focusing all her attention on motocross, but a ban on women riding in official race tracks means she can only practise in rudimentary clubs such as the one in Hashtgerd, where medical facilities are not available.
“We don’t have a single ambulance in the track. It’s an expensive sport and we have no sponsors. If someone has an injury, it might get even worse by the time the rider is taken to the hospital,” she said.
Shafiei has practised abroad, including in the UAE, where women can compete in track races without restrictions, but says she has no intention of joining a foreign team. “I want to be part of my own country’s team, I don’t want to go abroad. I want to bring pride to Iran and show that Iranian women can do this sport too.”
She added: “Outside, Iran is depicted differently. We want to change that view. People ask if women are allowed to drive in Iran. Of course they are.”
Shafiei says she looks up to , Iran’s most famous female car race driver, nicknamed “little Schumacher”, whose struggle to become the country’s first woman champion was the subject of a BBC documentary. “Laleh Seddigh is my idol, I hope that one day we will be allowed to race like her,” Shafiei said.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has called for gender equality since taking power and hopes are high, although he has yet to deliver on his promises. In 2013, in support of , the first Iranian female triathlete to take part in a world championship.
Fariba Javanmardi, the deputy head of Iran’s motorcycle and automobile federation, speaking to the country’s SNN student news agency this month, said: “Culture has not been promoted in this field and many are opposed to women riding on motorbikes. At the moment, you can’t imagine a women riding on a motorbike in the streets. But we hope that the issue of their licences would be resolved. We are working on it.”
Shafiei was confident Javanmardi and her colleagues were doing all they could to help. She said: “The restrictions in Iran are problematic for us. My wish is that this sport becomes free for women.”
“My motorbike is my love,” she said. “Motorcycling has changed my life for good, my entire life is tied to motorbikes. If I don’t ride, I’d fall ill. It’s a way for me to empty my mind and free myself.”